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In Defense of Wonder: Cinema and a Longing for Eden

The opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope is iconic. The camera slowly pans down into starry space as a small spacecraft desperately races away. Suddenly, a massive Imperial destroyer soars into frame in hot pursuit, the size discrepancy between the ships emphasized almost to the point of being comical. While perfectly establishing the narrative stakes, the scene does something less tangible. In that one moment, no viewer remains earthbound; all are swept away into a world far beyond. I remember the first time my children journeyed with me to a galaxy far, far away. The awe-struck look on their faces can best be described in just one word: wonder.   

Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola likened the first movie makers to “magicians,” and it’s easy to see why. There are moments in cinema that awaken a dormant sense of wonder. These moments, difficult to describe, tap into something deep within us at an emotional and even spiritual level. 

For more than a decade, James Cameron’s Avatar held the crown as the top-grossing movie of all time. Something about the immersive world of Pandora, experienced on a massive screen, captivated audiences. In fact, of the current 60 top-earning movies of all time, only 7 lack clear fantastical elements. Included in those seven is Batman (twice), Joker, James Bond, and Fast and Furious (twice), none of which truly represent the “real world.” Of the 60, only Titanic can claim a historical foundation (though one filtered through an imaginative Hollywood lens). 

Why are audiences repeatedly drawn to cinematic experiences that usher them away from their earthly realities? Perhaps it is because we were created for wonder.

Sehnsucht

Could it be that these wanderings are not an escape but a return? 

Genesis 3:23 is one of the most heartbreaking verses in the Bible: “So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.” The Bible doesn’t tell us whether Adam or Eve looked back as they departed, but humanity has been yearning for Eden ever since.   

Chronicles of Narnia author C. S. Lewis popularized the German word Sehnsucht to describe this sensation.The word means “yearning” or “wistful longing.” Lewis himself described it as an “inconsolable longing” within the human heart and soul for “we know not what.” 

This spiritual yearning is not limited to fantasy. Sublime music and visual art can fill us with the same sense of wonder. Nostalgia—a booming currency in today’s culture—is fueled by a stirring within us that things are not as they ought to be and a wistful remembering of “happier times.” While nostalgia temporarily alleviates the sense of loss, it never fully satisfies it. What we have lost goes far beyond our own childhood to the infancy of humanity itself. We yearn, not for childhood, but for Eden.  

Unashamed to Wonder

In the opening of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, the exceedingly practical schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind declares, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.  You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” 

In innocent childhood, we remain in closest proximity to Eden, but with each year we drift further away from the garden. Christians, for so long accused of being wishful dreamers, have largely pushed back with a rigidly rational faith. But what if Christians are wishful dreamers? After all, why shouldn’t they be? They most clearly recognize the magnitude of what was lost. While an unbelieving world may convince themselves to be content in an indifferent world of facts and calculations, Christians know that things are not as they once were. We were created for something more, something we once possessed and will one day experience again.   

J. R. R. Tolkien described the longing this way: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” If this world is not our home, then it is unsurprising that we are continually drawn to fantastical stories and moments of escape. 

While such experiences can shake us from our “reality”-induced coma and remind us to wonder, they will never fully satisfy as the objects of our wonder. It is worth quoting C. S. Lewis here at length (from The Weight of Glory):

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited.

A prisoner may dream of a long-gone freedom, but the only hope for true freedom lies not behind but ahead. Christians yearn for Eden, but there is no going back to that paradise. Yet, a hope remains for a future paradise and the re-creation of all that was lost (Revelation 22:1-5). Until that wonderful day, Christians must content themselves to dream, yearn, and wonder.   

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